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Wait, What…Witness?



The Greek word for witness is martys. Many of you have been taught that it means martyr. Well, yes and no. Two of the most famous verses where this Greek word is used appear at the end of Luke's gospel and at the beginning of Luke Part 2, or as we call it, Acts of the Apostles.


In Luke 24, Yeshua gives marching orders to his soon-to-be apostles. “You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you” (Lk 24:48–49). The idea is that they will need what the father has promised to be effective witnesses. In Acts 1, he gives us another angle of this conversation, where Jesus tells them that the Spirit of God is going to empower them so that they can be witnesses.


Legal Term

To be clear, he was not telling them that they were all going to die. Ironically, 10 out of 11 did become actual martyrs (John, according to tradition, was merely boiled in oil). But at the time, that is not how they understood the word. A witness or martys was much like you would understand it today: “one who testifies in legal matters,” or, “one who affirms or attests”[1] to something.


In English, if I told you that I needed you to testify or give witness to something, you would not assume that it means you will be killed for such testimony. But over time a new word or meaning emerged. In English, we created an entirely new word: martyr. But in Greek, martys took on another meaning: one who gives their life for their religious conviction.


Professor Jim Cain of MIT says,


“In the face of Roman persecutions of early Christians in the first three centuries of the Common Era, when Christian believers were put on trial for refusing to participate in state religious activities which were regarded as a civic duty incumbent upon all Roman citizens, the word took on an entirely new meaning. Witnessing to one's faith, giving testimony to one's most deeply held personal convictions in court under threat of torture and even death, became for these people the strongest calling that Christians could respond to and a way for them to directly imitate Jesus's suffering and death on the cross.”[2]

We first see this change in Acts 22:20. Paul refers to Stephen as a martys. Does he mean a witness or someone who died for their religious conviction? The NIV translates it as martyr, “the blood of your martyr Stephen,” but nearly every other translation translates the word as witness. This is the only place in the New Testament where the word martys is considered in the light of someone dying for their faith.


The Age of the Martyrs

As the Roman government began to see New Testament faith as something other than Judaism, early believers were persecuted. Let me explain. Because Judaism believed in just one God, Rome made a concession and did not force Caesar worship on the Jewish people. While Judaism continued to be a legal religion, Christianity was outlawed. Virtually everyone not Jewish in the Roman Empire had to participate in pagan festivals, in which they would have to perform rituals affirming the Roman gods. As a result, their resistance became their testimony. Many of these believers gave their lives for their faith.


The early period of the Church is known as the “classic” age of martyrs, although more Christians were martyred during the 20th century. In the early Church, Christians were killed in various ways because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to acknowledge the emperor as divine.[3]

Martyrdom means Growth

The word witness or martys took on a new meaning. Tertullian (155-220 CE) wrote the now famous prose, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” as it appeared that the more Rome resisted New Testament believers, the faster the ecclesia grew.


Zeal to Die

In fact, many believers longed to die a martyr's death. Of course, there can be extremes. I don't think that we should be exploring opportunities for martyrdom, and yet we should always be willing to testify for our faith. It is my firm belief that when someone gives their life for their faith, it releases grace for others. After Stephen was killed, the gospel spread even further. It’s not by accident that the very next story Luke records after Stephen is martyred is of Philip holding revival meetings in Samaria.


The church father Origen longed to die a martyr's death. “In 202 when his father, Leonidas, was beheaded for his Christian beliefs, Origen wanted to die as a martyr, too. But his mother prevented him from even leaving the house [to turn himself in to the authorities]—by hiding his clothes.”[4]


Rejoice, Don’t Complain

The proper response to persecution is to rejoice. We see a lot of complaining today when believers are targeted for their faith, especially in the West. But the example of the apostles in the first chapters of the Book of Acts is not to protest, but to celebrate. Of course, they did not live in democratic societies where their objections would have meant anything. But it does seem that when we rejoice in the face of persecution, from the biblical example, the body of believers matures in character and grows numerically.


Every believer is called to be a witness. Some of us will be called to be martyrs.


[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 619.

[3] John Fink, “Early Church: The classic age of martyrs,” The Criterion, June 5, 2015, https://www.archindy.org/criterion/local/2015/06-05/fink.html

[4] “Origen,” Christianity Today, accessed August 31, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/origen.html

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